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Social workers are not useless, irrelevant

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Added 31st January 2020 10:01 AM

Social workers like any other professionals play a pivotal role in mentoring and skilling the youth at both micro and macro levels

By Byamukama Michael Ntanda

An open letter to President Yoweri Museveni regarding recent remarks about social workers

Your Excellency,

Together we can develop this country without blaming each other. We are approximately 185,000 social work professionals in Uganda (excluding paraprofessional) working in different sectors and 22 Associate members (organizations, universities and line ministries) that subscribe to National Association of Social Workers of Uganda (NASWU). We are ready to dialogue with you Your Excellency on this for the good of our country.

As social work professionals, we are not happy that Your Excellency our fountain of honour has been quoted belittling the social work program as useless, the most recent incident being while you were officiating at the Kyambogo University graduation and often used it as an example of courses that need to be scrapped from the university curriculum as graduates of this “useless” and irrelevant course are the reason the country is failing to fix unemployment.

Referring to our profession as useless and irrelevant instead of appreciating its contribution in transforming this country is a betrayal. Social workers feel betrayed and undermined by the negative comments from the political leadership of this country. Another example is while appearing on NTV’s political talk-show – on the spot – to discuss the unemployment situation in Uganda, Ms Rose Namayanja said “some useless courses need to be scrapped at the University. Courses such as social work are partly responsible for the unemployment problem that Uganda is grappling with”. Ms Namayanja is not the first top government official to openly attack the social work profession with statements that not only undermine the profession but also link it to the unemployment problem.

Your Excellency, social workers like any other professionals play a pivotal role in mentoring and skilling the youth at both micro and macro levels. For example, the government cannot fully handle the youth challenge without involving social workers and in the same way, cannot manage the refugee crisis flocking into the country without involving social workers.  The country cannot solve the land question with only a legal approach, we need skilled professional social workers in the equation.

Your Excellency, it is not because of social workers that no jobs are created in the economy? For example, what are veterinary doctors doing? Are they all employed? Students who study agriculture? Are they all employed? Where are the telecom engineers employed? What about students who have done oil studies? What about students who study law, education and Human Medicine? All of them are not fully employed. The problem is much more than one category of training. Your Excellency, unemployment is bigger than any profession. I’m aware under your excellent leadership the government is already doing tremendous work in skilling the youth, but more is needed to deliberately establish and invest in complementary technical/hands-on skills training for graduates to facilitate innovations that would transform this country and professional social workers are critical partners in making this initiative a reality.

Your Excellency, I think all people who work in the helping professions are heroic because we offer ourselves daily to help others. But I believe that social workers are particularly heroic because we’re on the front line tackling all the social problems that exist in our nation. We, work with the most vulnerable, the terminally ill, children who are battered and abandoned by parents and caretakers, the homeless, the mentally ill, soldiers returning from missions, the drug and alcohol addicts, victims of domestic violence and families who need to learn to communicate with each other more effectively. We inspire, we cheerlead, and we advocate for millions of people every day, and, in the process, many people who would otherwise suffer lives of quiet desperation and hopelessness have hope and the motivation to succeed. We counsel people who want to end their lives because of despair. We give hope to people facing a long struggle with terminal illness. We work with our political leaders to make our communities more liveable and to offer opportunity where it didn’t exist before. We are neither liberal nor conservative but believe that what we do from the heart is paid back in the wonderful feeling that our lives have been dedicated to helping others. This is what we cherish rather than being referred to as useless profession and causing unemployment.

Your Excellency, Social Services delivery in Uganda remains a huge challenge with a highly dependent population. According to the 2010 Orphan and Vulnerable Children (OVC) Situation Analysis report, nearly 50% (8.1 million out of 17.5 million) children below the age of 18 are vulnerable, with 1.3 million children considered critically vulnerable. 7.5 million Children experience child poverty and are deprived of essential basic services. Eight million youths aged 15 to 30 years are considered vulnerable.

Your Excellency, as a pan African and a patriot, these statistics not only represent Uganda but are mirrored in many of the African countries. If African countries are to address these issues, the social services workforce has to be strengthened in all the countries. Collectively they are the change agents, in concert with the populations they serve, for improving the welfare of a myriad of disadvantaged and marginalized populations. Strengthening the workforce is core in strengthening the social service system.

Your Excellency, for example, Uganda needs a strong social work department in all sectors. Your Excellency, for example, as a country, we need Professional Social Workers in preparing UPDF officers on foreign peace missions and those retiring from the army including veterans. Social work is of no lesser significance to development and Uganda like any other progressing economies need professional social workers.  Uganda problems cannot only be solved by science. His Excellency, in initial stages of HIV epidemic, if we had remained stack in science not understanding that the war against HIV had a social aspect, Uganda would not have achieved all the world well known and documented milestones. Professional social workers played a critical role and will continue to do the same in the war against HIV. His Excellence, NRM Leaders who liberated Uganda were well taken care of by professional social workers when they were exiled and became refugees especially in different parts of the world including Europe, and it was because of these great unique skilled professionals who handled them well that they were able to come back and liberate this country.  Mr President, by calling social work, social sciences and other humanities courses useless and insisting that they should be scraped off from the university programmes, you are indirectly telling your government that social services sectors/Ministries should be scrapped off. Your Excellence, can the government operate without these sectors?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outline strategies for countries to end poverty and improve the lives of children and families by addressing health, education, justice, migration and protection from violence. By committing to achieving the SDGs by 2030, UN member states affirm the fundamental rights of children to be protected from all forms of violence, abuse or exploitation. These goals including Uganda vision 2040 and East Africa Community vision 2050 will remain a dream without a strong and locally-based social work service workforce. 

Evidence shows that developed economies value social work and Uganda needs professional Social workers. We can also pick lessons from our own sister country South Africa which in initial stages of development did not value the social work profession. My recommendation is that we commission a committee of selected technical experts to gather empirical evidence to guide rather than downplaying the importance of the social work profession and yet it is a critical profession for any progressing economy.  

The Social Work profession is a globally respected profession with representation at the UN through the International Federation of Social. Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline which promotes social change, problem-solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges. 

Your Excellency among other things, professional social workers are equipped to utilize theories of human behaviour and social systems. Social workers intervene at the points where people interact with their environments. Social work in various forms addresses the multiple, complex transactions between people and aims at enabling all people to develop to their full potential, enrich lives and prevent a dysfunction society.

Social work is globally being applied in a variety of settings and numerous agencies with people across the world benefiting from its services. Social work professional services include psychiatry, medical, marriage and family counselling, social research, rehabilitation and correction centres service, public, workplace and child welfare. Social work does not only address needs and problems at the personal or family level but also at the national and international level.

Your excellency, the concurrent processes of industrialization and urbanization taking place do pose great challenges to our country. The major consequences of these processes for Uganda, which are almost similar to those that occurred in the developed world over the past centuries, include rural-urban drift, disintegration of the role of the family, unplanned parenthood, individualism, increased crime and delinquency, conflicts, physical and mental disability, slums, unemployment, inadequate social services and sexual immorality. Social work is needed to minimize the strains and stresses associated with these social problems and to provide programmes of social improvement which will prevent individual maladjustments and social disruptions. Social workers in Uganda have been key in the formulation of national social policies, national strategies and programmes (under MoGLSD) which, if properly conceived and implemented, will enhance sustainable economic and social development.

Your excellency, we may not be able to afford the luxury and the expense of slowing down the pace of industrialization (or urbanization) or its consequent changes in material living. It is imperative that through thoughtful and purposeful planning, we should give due consideration to the social and human consequences of changes so that we can make practical and effective use of the increasing knowledge of human behaviour and of developing experience in the field of human relations. We need to deliberately invest in Social Services workforce for quality services rather than continuously blaming unemployment on wrong profession that would guide the country on solving the challenge. Other professionals are also experiencing the same challenge – need to do a comparison study and you will be shocked. This is not only a Uganda challenge, but a global unavoidable transformational challenge to all leaders.

Social change occurs when new situations emerge alongside or over old ones. These situations bring with them certain conditions which may be defined by concerned people as “socially problematic” or as “social problems”. A social problem thus exists when a significant number of people or a number of influential people feel that a particular condition is harmful and that something has to be done to rectify it. The skills of social workers are employed to alleviate adverse social conditions in public, private, civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations. The fact that social workers operate in so many and diverse settings is itself indicative of the significance of social work in national development. Social workers provide a wide variety of social services to meet social needs or mitigate social problems. The most important contribution of social work profession is the consideration it gives to the human and socio-economic sides of development. This is essential in order to avoid high material and economic standards without consequent matches in human and social standards.

Lastly, I would request you, Your Excellency, to support the Social Work Profession to establish a council through the Act of parliament to regulate the social work profession in Uganda. We need to know that Unregulated, unmonitored and unskilled social doctor is extremely dangerous to service users. That’s why we are doing well at the policy formulation level and poorly at the implementation level. Regulating social work practice and skilling the social workforce at service delivery level will save this country from many social problems including unemployment and deadly corruption the country is struggling with.

A national council will monitor and enforce the code of conduct of the social workforce including the professional values. At training level, social work education is provided in the context of post-secondary institutions and regulated under the University and Other Tertiary Institutions Act (2001). Recently National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) launched the minimum standards for training and educating social workers in Uganda. When enforced it will ensure high quality of social workers produced at tertiary level.

A well trained professional social worker is a job creator not a job seeker. Social workers are problem solvers, game changers, innovators, organizers, advocates, influencers, implementers, leaders and champions. They engage on a micro level while operating in a macro context. Social workers are trained to thrive in almost any setting. On the other hand, at practice level, social work remains unregulated with no legislation to support its establishment and modus operandi.

This status quo has limited the utilization of the professional social work capacity in the country in innovating lasting solutions to emerging social concerns in society.  Nevertheless, the social development sector has a number of laws and policies, which are directly linked to social work practice notably the Social protection policy (2015) and its attendant Implementation Plan. “We need to regulate Social Work Practice in Uganda to ensure quality of services offered to the population,”  

Your Excellency, it is high time the social work profession is respected and recognized by our government like any other profession in Uganda. We look forward to working jointly with the Government of Uganda for a better future.

For God and My Country.

The writer is the president of the National Association of Social Workers in Uganda

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